By Elham Gharji, University of Coimbra
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Caspian-Central Asia region has been the focus of several regionalism and regional cooperation initiatives. The revival of the ancient silk-road has been a shared narrative in almost all of these initiatives. Yet, each one of them seems to promote a different geopolitical vision for the region, depending on donors’ priorities and the interests of the regional and global sponsors of the economic connectivity projects.
While the competing geopolitical visions of the regional cooperation projects have hampered practical progress, they have been utilized by states in the region, particularly in Central Asia, for the purpose of geopolitical balancing as well as strengthening their international recognition. The many regionalism projects and ideas have also offered the Central Asian states with a range of options, which they used to increase their negotiating power with bigger actors and ensure their sovereignty. Therefore, despite the official discourse on regional cooperation, connectivity and development, the states in the region have done little to overcome barriers for regional economic cooperation. As a result, the once well-integrated Caspian-Central Asia regions have increasingly become one of the least integrated regions in the world.
This ‘managed-cooperation’ –as this paper calls it- has been a strategy employed by the states in Central Asia to balance and resist external powers, as well as to strengthen authoritarian security and regime recognition. This functioning mechanism is complex. The limited and selective engagement with external projects and organizations allows the states in the region to avoid the geopolitical tensions inherent in the external projects, while at same time, it offers them the opportunity to play those projects off against each other to increase their negotiating power and regime recognition.
While the states in Central Asia have skillfully used the external projects to play off external powers’ pressures and gain recognition, the region remains in dire need for regional economic connectivity given its rich natural resources. With external projects largely failing to do so, a regional initiative and leadership may be necessary to create such an opportunity.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the wider Caspian and Central Asian regional space has been the focus of several regional cooperation, development and connectivity initiatives. They include the European Union supported Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), the Chinese New Silkroad Economic Belt – also known as One Belt One Road – the United Nation’s Special Program for Economies of Central Asia (UN-SPECA), the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), the American New Silkroad Initiative announced by Hilary Clinton in 2011, and the Russian sponsored Eurasian Economic Union ( EEU). Some of these projects are at different phases of their implementation.
However, with few exceptions, regional connectivity projects have proved difficult to realize in the region as most of them entail bigger visions promoting competing ideas of regionalisms.Using secondary sources, this paper first introduces the idea of regionalism as geopolitics, giving specific examples of the geopolitical imaginaries of some of these projects. The paper concludes by explaining how states in the region used regional frameworks to both balance and resist external pressures, and gain regime recognition by external powers.
The (geo)politics of regionalism in Central Asia
Regionalism is essentially about geopolitics as it aims at creating regional spaces, boundaries and identities that involve practices of power, inclusions and exclusions. That is how policy makers and leaders perceive regional integration projects in the real world too. In 2012, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that:
“There is a move to re-Sovietise the region. It’s not going to be called that….It will be called Eurasian Union and all of that. But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”
The Russian perception about the Western sponsored regional connectivity projects such as TRACECA, the New Silkroad Initiative, CAREC, etc. is quite similarly perceived to be a western regional cooperation vision for the region intended to reduce the region’s dependency on Russia, while advancing western influence.
In fact, externally driven regional connectivity projects in Central Asia follow certain geopolitical imaginaries involving the projection of power and a politics of inclusion/exclusion. For example, the multi-billion multi-donor regional connectivity project Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC), brings together a set of diverse countries from Pakistan, to China, Azerbaijan and Mongolia, to create a regional network of economies that will be eventually linked to the global market economy. Ten countries, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, the People’s Republic of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are members of CAREC. As such, CAREC draws a very different map for the region compared to the EEU. Russia is not part of the project and it usually sees such projects with a great deal of suspicion and as western-driven initiatives.
Non-western projects such as the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative are also perceived in geopolitical terms. Some analysts have argued that Russia and Kazakhstan’s Eurasianism in the context of promoting Eurasian Economic Union is due primarily to these countries’ concerns over the rise of China. “The Eurasian Union therefore can be considered as an attempt toward enhanced regional partnership, short of forming an alliance, designed to advance natural integrative links but also dealing with new economic and geopolitical challenges driven by the rise of China and decline of Europe.”Perhaps, it was due to this geopolitical concern that China tried to accommodate Russia by offering to merge the EEU and One Belt One Road.
However, the EEU remains an important project for Russia, which did not agree to merge this with One Belt, One Road, but rather preferred to maintain the status of the EEU as a complementary yet independent project to that of the One Belt One Road. The EEU entails Russia geopolitical vision for the region. It is a geopolitical project infused with region-building connotations and evolving into concrete forms of regional economic integration. The shared Soviet history underpins the idea of a community, which the EEU tries to build.
However, despite some degree of success and support in its official discourse, the EEU is hardly getting through with “re-sovietising” the region. In fact, the states in the region have been capable of employing such external projects in their favour. Facing the geopolitical challenges inherent in the regional connectivity projects, the states in Central Asia have chosen to ‘cooperate in order not to cooperate’, and therefore to “manage” cooperation within the external frameworks as a strategy which, despite hampering practical regional cooperation, earned them much in terms of regime recognition and negotiating power. Most states in the region decided to be part of most initiatives and regional organizations with the intention to use their participation to their benefit. This consisted in balancing th geopolitical ambitions of the external powers, and reducing their impact to a minimum by playing them off against each other. As a result, this managed-cooperation became key to enhancing their role in the international affairs of the region.
The guiding principles that the regional states used to manage their relations with external actors have been that of “multi-vector diplomacy” and “sovereignty”. Facing Russia’s hegemonic agenda, the countries in Central Asia used “multi-vector diplomacy” to enhance their relations with other external players such as the EU and China and to manage Russia’s hegemonic aspirations. The term “Sovereignty” was used to fight western pressures for democratization and political reforms. As such, these terms helped the states in the region to both balance and resist external powers, while ensuring their increased sovereignty and recognition by the external powers, including the West.
While the strategy of the ‘managed-cooperation’ employed by the Central Asian states’ might have helped them strengthening their sovereignty, the region suffers from the lack of actual cooperation in terms of bringing positive changes through regional economic connectivity and development. With external projects largely failing, the future pathway may be through the exercise of regional leadership involving the Central Asian states themselves. The new Uzbek leadership has taken important steps in this direction over the last two years to build confidence through solving bilateral issues and fostering regional dialogue among Central Asian leaders. While Uzbekistan’s prospects for leadership are yet to be seen, the momentum for dialogue and political consensus among Central Asian leaders could be used to advance a cooperative agenda. The international community should build on such momentum to support regional cooperation in the region, which may eventually translate into regional connectivity overcoming geopolitical impasse.
 TRACECA was endorsed at a conference in Brussels in 1993 with participation of ministers of trade and transports of the member countries. The program aims EU with 14 countries of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Romania, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan via a series of transport linkages through sea, road, train and aviation. For more details see <http://www.traceca-org.org/en/traceca/history-of-traceca/>
 The new silkroad initiative emphasizes regional connectivity between Central Asia and South Asia through Afghanistan to improve regional economic development and security. The initiative was announced in Chennai, India during Clintons’ visit. See Hillary Clinton, “A vision for 21st century”, US. Department of State, July 2011, available at <http://translations.state.gov/st/english/texttrans/2011/07/20110720165044su0.7134014.html#axzz3QYrU39HZ.>
See Emerson R. Guy (2014) ‘An Art of the Region: Towards a Politics of Regionness’, New Political Economy 19(4): 559-577; Neumann, I.B. (2003) ‘A Region Building Approach’ in F. Söderbaum and T.M Shaw (eds), Theories of New Regionalism. New York: Palgrave MacMillan; and Fawcett, Louise (2004) ‘Exploring regional domains: a comparative history of regionalism’, International Affairs, 80(3): 429-446.
 Clover, Charles. “Clinton vows to thwart new Soviet Union”, Financial Times , December 6, 2012. < https://www.ft.com/content/a5b15b14-3fcf-11e2-9f71-00144feabdc0>
 The initiative remains as an idea. No project has been launched yet.
Azizian, Rouben and Bainazarova, Elnara (2012:378) Eurasian Response to Rise of China: Russia and Kazakhstan in search of Optimal China Policy, Asian Politics & Policy, 4: (3):377–399
In May 2015,China offered to integrate the One Belt, One Road with Eurasian Economic Union saying that the two programs are not competing, but complementing each other. See Joint Statement On Cooperation on the Construction of Joint Eurasian Economic Union and the Silkraod Project at http://china-trade-research.hktdc.com/business-news/article/One-Belt-One-Road/Joint-Statement-onCooperation-on-the-Construction-of-Joint-Eurasian-Economic-Union-and-the-Silk-RoadProjects/obor/en/1/1X000000/1X0A3ABV.htm
 Makarychev, Andrey (2011) The Caspian Region: Local Dynamics, Global Reverberations, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo 139. The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.
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